by COL Tay Swee Yee
6 October 1973, at 1405 hours, one thousand
Egyptian guns opened fire across the Suez Canal into Israeli
defence positions. The Yom Kippur War was underway. The seemingly
formidable sand ramparts built by the Israelis as part of
the Bar-Lev Line defences, towering some 30 to 60 feet in
height over the Canal, were ingeniously overcome by the Egyptians.
A young Egyptian Army engineer had devised a novel method
of excavation. High pressure pumps, mounted on rafts and sucking
water from the Canal, ejected jets of water through hoses
which thrust aside the sand, breaching gaps in the sand ramparts.1
Some 100 of these powerful fire-pumps were acquired from Germany.
That facilitated the crossing and landing of Egyptian troops
and equipment on the far bank using bridges and ferries. The
invincibility of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), accrued
from past years of victories fighting the neighbouring Arabs,
was challenged. The 1973 Arab-Israeli War evinced this and
many other lessons on the need for creativity in combat.
Battlefield innovation, or creativity in
combat, can determine the outcome of a conflict. "Successful
military endeavours always rely on creative insight and action.
Generating the unexpected (the "new") or recognising
and acting on the unexpected on the battlefield is consistently
the key to victory".2 For the SAF, it is important that
we add impetus to acquiring this culture of creativity during
peacetime, so that in times of conflict, we have the mental
agility and creative leadership, at all levels of command,
to prosecute a war in our favour.
So what is battlefield innovation, which
is synonymous with creativity in combat? "Creativity
is the ability to look at the same thing as everyone else
but to see something different".3 Applied to the military
art, it is about finding solutions to tactical problems posed
by the opposing force; it is about finding a qualitative edge
to overcome the threat; and it is about looking at ways to
improve our military skills, arms and equipment handling as
well as work processes. We have to be creative as it can spell
the difference between a decisive victory and dismal defeat.
"If necessity is the mother of invention, she is surely
the matriarch of expediency".4 Battlefield innovation
is not solely defence-industries driven, but often initiated
in the field, although the solutions may have commercial content.
And why is there the need for battlefield
innovation? It is because militaries do not always show all
their cards prior to a conflict, hence it is difficult to
ascertain an opposing force's complete capability. In the
Yom Kippur War, the IDF was taken by surprise when the Egyptian
Army started using canvas-covered suitcases that revealed
the new Soviet Sagger ATGM which took its toll on IDF tanks.
In the midst of conflict, the IDF Armoured Corps which was
not trained to react against this weapon, had to hastily devise
what was later known as anti-Sagger drills to dodge the wire-guided
Sagger by aggressive driving - swerving and steering the targetted
vehicle in a vigourous zig-zag manner, especially at the terminal
phase when the low velocity missile was nearing the vehicle.
The drill incorporated laying machine-gun fire in the vicinity
of the suspected missile firer position as the firer had to
be in visual contact with the target to guide the missile
to the target.
All intelligence acquisition capabilities
have limitations, and often even with incomplete intelligence
reports a military force may have to commence hostilities.
It is this need to expect the unexpected that we ought to
cultivate in ourselves the ability to innovate, even in times
of crisis, so as to reduce or negate the unexpected advantage
the threat has over us be it in terms of special weapons and
equipment capability, or in terms of special tactics and doctrine.
History is replete with examples of how battlefield
innovations helped in turning the tide of war. As early as
the 16th century, the plug bayonet was replaced by the ring
bayonet to allow the infantry to continue firing with the
bayonet attached. 5
For the Normandy landings, multi-ship breakwaters,
or Mulberries as they were called, sailed on 30 May 1944 as
part of the invasion force from ports in Scotland to the five
designated beaches. These artificial harbours were a tribute
to engineering ingenuity. They consisted of cylindrical floats
linked together and anchored in deep water to serve as breakwaters.
Concrete caissons (phoenixes), some as high as a six-storey
building, would be towed across the channel and sunk in place
to extend the Mulberry breakwaters. In the sheltered water,
rooms were provided for the anchoring of ocean-going as well
as coastal ships.6
At the same landing beaches, the Allied forces
were confronted with hedgerows at the egress routes, which
the American troops were not trained nor prepared to overcome.
Tanks were particularly vulnerable when climbing over such
obstacles as the lightly armoured tank bellies would be exposed
to enemy fire. At such critical moments also, the tank gun
could not be depressed sufficiently to return fire. SGT Curtis
G. Cullin Jr., an American serving in the 102nd Cavalry Recce
Squadron, devised a sort of fork made of iron which could
be attached to the front of the tank thus enabling it to cut
through a hedgerow rather than climb it. A maintenance expert
in the same unit then worked on the technical aspect of the
problem and built forks out of salvaged iron bars which the
Germans had used for beach obstacles. A frantic pace developed
to equip as many tanks as possible with the simple contraption
before the final breakout - "Operation Cobra". SGT
Cullin was later awarded the Legion of Merit for his innovativeness.7
The Americans were surprised yet again in
the initial years of their involvement in South Vietnam when
they discovered a unique battle fought inside a 200-mile labyrinth
of underground tunnels and complex chambers that the Vietcongs
dug just north of Saigon. None of the American troops sent
to Vietnam had any instruction on tunnel warfare. As death
toll climbed, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV),
recommended the creation of specialist soldiers later to evolve
as the "Tunnel Rats". Volunteers who were able to
operate in a claustrophobic environment, and who possessed
special type of temperament and courage, were sought from
the ranks. Pistols were used instead of rifles to minimise
damage to the ears when fighting in the tunnels, and soldiers
were trained to engage at short ranges in the dark. They were
also schooled in detecting booby traps that existed in the
Meanwhile, at the Limited Warfare Laboratory
(LWL) in Maryland, USA, engineers were trying to develop counter-insurgency
hardware to meet the operational needs of the combatants.
One of the developments was the "tunnel exploration kit"
which comprised three items. For the Tunnel Rats to move around
the darkened tunnels, each had a headlamp mounted on a fatigue
cap with hands-free, mouth operated switch that the wearer
bites to turn the light on and off. In lieu of a manpack signal
set, a communication system with sensitive "bone conductor
microphone" worn against the bone at the back of the
head, or strapped around the throat with reception through
the earpiece was developed. Each had a .38 calibre revolver
with four-inch barrel complete with silencer and a tiny high
intensity aiming light to gun down the Vietcongs.9 However,
rigourous field trials were done and these were found to be
not ideal and the Tunnel Rats eventually resorted to other
field expedient methods.
The mechanised forces propagated a drill,
known as the "mad-minute", in response to previous
Vietcong sneak attacks on their leaguering (harbouring) sites.
It was a minute of intense machine-guns fire in the vicinity
of the intended leaguering site to flush out any Vietcongs
that may be lying in wait to ambush or attack the leaguering
The War of Attrition (from 1967 to 1973)
between the IDF and the Egyptians also spun many battlefield
innovations. In a bid to prevent the IDF from prying into
the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal, the Egyptian combat engineers
constructed ten-metre high sand walls. IDF front-line intelligence
officers with high-powered binoculars, trying to get a height
advantage, had to climb onto anything that would help them
to peer into Egyptian territory. These included the driver's
cab top of half-tracks, hull top of armoured personnel carriers
and even on the top of bunker ventilation systems. Subsequently,
the IDF Ordnance Corps helped built, according to the Intelligence
Corps' specifications, a sixty-foot high cherry picker attached
to the turret area of a Sherman tank.10 This tower, though
rudimentary, provided the intelligence officers, and the artillery
spotter, with a surveillance platform that was nearly invisible
against the desert backdrop.
An innovative IDF intelligence officer, Shabtai
Bril, recalled an expensive toy shop that he had visited in
the United States, where a sales clerk had demonstrated a
radio-controlled model airplane. The motorized airplane was
powered by a remote-control device equipped with four transmitting
frequencies - two to power the engine, one to control the
wing flaps, and a fourth serving as a reserve. With some modifications,
Shabtai Bril thought, the reserve frequency could operate
a 35mm camera fitted with a zoom lens, which the IDF would
have no difficulty fitting to the aircraft's undercarriage.
The toys were bought from the store and a series of field
trials followed, including determining if the device could
survive anti-aircraft gun fire. The unmanned aircraft was
controlled by an intelligence officer flying in a Piper Cub,
holding the remote-control device on his lap, and monitoring
the aircraft using binoculars. Photographs taken over the
Sinai front as well as the Jordan Valley, while evading Jordanian
anti-aircraft fire and not drawing the attention of the Egyptians,
were of superb quality. "The age of the remote piloted
vehicle (RPV) had dawned".11
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, members of the
Israeli Air Force (IAF) showed ingenuity in dealing with the
array of Soviet supplied weapons operated by the Egyptians,
after experiencing heavy losses in aircraft. While the IAF
knew how to evade the SA-2 Guideline and SA-3 Goa surface-to-air
weapons, they had greater difficulty in dealing with the newer
and mobile surface-to-air missile, SA-6 Gainful, and the portable
SA-7 Grail systems. Counter-measures were experimented with,
ranging from simple measures such as dropping of foil strips
(window or chaff); to techniques using helicopter spotters
in cooperation with attack aircraft; and the shedding of flares
to attract the missile infra-red homers.12 An effective method
of attacking SA-6 batteries was conceived, entailing almost
vertical dives from height directly above the missile vehicles
to exploit the fact that the weapon’s initial launch trajectory,
for maximun acceleration, was low.13
In the run up to the 1982 Israeli-Syrian
conflict, which was a part of the larger IDF's "Operation
Peace of Galilee" in Lebanon, the IAF flew drones which
simulated manned aircraft to induce the Syrians to activate
their air defences. This was necessary to piece together the
Syrian air defence capabilities and to gather intelligence
on any new or unfielded weapons that the Syrians could have
recently acquired. When the drones were fired upon, accompanying
IAF RF-4E reconnaissance aircraft were monitoring electronic
emissions to map out the Syrian radar characteristics, communication
equipment and procedures, command and control structures,
weapons capabilities, and air defence tactics.14 Much thought
was given in employing this tactic. Decoy drones, the Samson,
an air-launched unpowered glider and Delilah, a ground-launched
powered drone, were used in large numbers to simulate an air
attack on Syrian positions. The Samsons, which had the radar
profile of the IAF F-4 Phantoms and carrying an electronic
counter-measure package, were particularly important. They
were released from F-4 Phantoms with the sun behind them.
This meant that the Syrians could not possibly track the drones
optically and had to resort to their radar. With the Syrian
radar now active, follow on Phantoms would then engage the
Lessons learnt from past wars were translated
into innovations in the design of new equipment as the IDF
has successfully shown in the design of the Merkava tank.
For example, the smoke launchers that are intended to mask
the tank in an extrication are fitted with delay fuses that
activate the smoke bombs in the air and in effect cast an
instantaneous screen. This contrasts with conventional smoke
grenade that activates the smoke screen after the grenade
lands on the ground. Beneath the first layer of cast iron
hull is a space filled with diesel fuel and then another layer
of armour. This spaced armour gives the tank protection from
HEAT projectiles and ATGWs. One would also notice the closely
spaced chains with ball ends around the lower part of the
turret bustle. These detonate HEAT projectiles before they
can hit the turret ring. The tank does not carry jerry-cans
of drinking water; the 60-litre water tank is built within
the hull above the rear hatch that conforms to the contour
of the hull to save space.
Fostering the Climate of
Creativity in the SAF
Can the climate of creativity be fostered
in the military where the buzzwords are "school solution",
"zero defect", "don't fix it if it ain't broke"
or "don't rock the boat"? Creativity has attendant
risks and in seeking improvements and experimentation, mistakes
are made. Can the organisation tolerate mistakes? Buy-in of
the senior military leaders is important to propagate the
culture of creative thinking. Without it, any creative ideas
will remain stillborn as the military, like parts of the civil
service, can be bureaucratic. Hence it is important that the
senior leadership interest themselves with this concept. The
military has to accept that the defence dollars will not be
growing any larger, and any improvement to the defence capabilities
may have to be, in part, done through innovative and creative
solutions not only in defence procurement and equipping but
also in our work practices and processes.
It is easier to accept mistakes, associated
with experimentation, in peacetime than in wars as no lives
will be lost. So long as the experimentation and the mistakes
so made are in good intent, superiors must be willing to,
not only to tolerate them, but to encourage experimenters
to learn from their mistakes. A poor leader stifles creativity.
Military leaders must not be too quick to
dismiss, demolish or ignore new military ideas and concepts.
We recall the British Army’s experiment in the Salisbury Plain
prior to World War II on the innovative concept of employing
tanks. The British military leadership was slow to recognise
“the revolutionary potential of armoured mobile warfare and
the new tool for controlling this fluid, fast-moving battlefield:
the wireless radio”.15 The Germans, on the other hand, were
quick to capitalise on the pioneering works of the British
and created the panzer divisions and the doctrine of blitzkrieg,
which they used with such devastating effect against the British
in the early war years.
Does creativity contravene the culture of
an Army driven by doctrine? How often does a unit get penalised
by exercise controllers for not following published doctrine
even though the actions of the unit under assessment was approaching
a tactical problem with an innovative solution? Doctrine is
an accepted way, though not the only way, of doing things
in a particular profession. It is intended as a guide especially
for those new to the profession, and as a common form of language.
They are of course cynics who proclaim that doctrine is obsolete
as soon as it is printed! Doctrine is necessary to guide the
development of a military organisation and to get the acts
of an intricate organisation like the military with its hierarchical
structure of section, platoon, company, battalion, brigade
etc. to be coherent and effective. The application of doctrine
must be tempered with rationality and if creativity can be
featured by way of another method of achieving the same effects,
assessors must be open-minded and commend the spirit of innovativeness.
Doctrine is a living phenomenon. It is but a way, not the
only way, of doing things. Doctrine cannot address every tactical
scenario that the established doctrine are to be applied.
Certainly doctrine can be changed if a new mode of overcoming
a military solution or one that can control the chaos often
associated with combat ("controlled chaos") proved
Are We Getting It Right?
The nation in general, and the SAF in particular,
are largely on the right track in our attempt to promote and
stimulate creativity. Nationally, we have various government
bodies to handle this and the National Technology and Science
Board had done an excellent job of stewarding this effort,
including priming the Young Innovators Club. The young school
children have proved their mettle with innovative ideas evident
by the inventions featured in the annual Tan Kah Kee Young
Inventors' Award, now in its 11th year of existence. Rear-Admiral
Teo Chee Hean, our Education Minister, has also announced
the inclusion of creative thinking skills in our school curriculum.
It remains for the adult workforce to fully subscribe to this
culture in their workplace.
Dr. Yoshiro Nakamats, who is credited with
more than 2,300 patents (as compared to Thomas Edison's 1,093),
and who invented the floppy disk, lauded the Eastern way of
education in preparing children for the strong competition
in the workplace and its effect on creativity.16 The Japanese
school system, he said, stressed "memorisation"
which is necessary up to a point. "Then young people
begin free-associating, putting everything together."
It is this balance of regimentation and freedom that creativity
The SAF has been, is still, and will continue
to be the pioneering entity in this movement with our PRIDE,
WITs and other related programmes. It is critical for the
SAF to continually seek innovations in our peacetime training
so that the same culture will prevail in times of tension.
In this regard, it is heartening to note that the emphasis
on our WITs projects continues to be centred on operation-related
projects. Although improvements in the workplace and administration
are important, it is the operational area (training methods,
doctrine and tactics, improvements to weapons and equipment
handling, as well as training safety) that we must continue
our emphasis so that we can have the qualitative edge over
an adversary. This is the key if we are to be prepared for
the expected in a conflict. It is the surest way to maintain
the mental agility to be able to overcome, and not be overwhelmed
by, something unexpectedly thrust upon us.
Creative Rule of Thumb
Charles Thompson in his book - What a Great
Idea! The Key Steps Creative People Take - introduces certain
rules of thumb which are instructive.17 Here are two examples.
His first rule is "the best way to get great ideas is
to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away". There
are many solutions to a problem and the idea is to keep all
options open and evaluated in terms of feasibility, efficacy,
cost-effectiveness etc. so that the option that best meet
the need is selected. The second rule is "create ideas
that are fifteen minutes ahead of their time ... not light-years
ahead". The thrust here is to find marginal improvement
to a problem as it is likely to be easier than to find a revolutionary
solution, which if a solution is not readily available, the
people involved may feel disillusioned. Also, ideas that are
fifteen minutes ahead of their time are more likely to be
accepted or less likely to be ignored by the management or
the military leadership who can visualise if the idea works.
In 1899, the director of the United States
Patent Office, the nation's steward of innovation, was quoted
to have said "everything that can be invented has been
invented".18 He couldn't have been more wrong.
For the SAF leadership, in our bid to continue
to promote military creativity, we have to make changes to
management mind-sets. We must temper our notion of "zero-defect".
It demands the cultivation of a whole new culture, a more
open culture - open to criticism and change, and open to experimentation
that has associated risks and mistakes. It demands that we
encourage subordinates to leverage and learn from mistakes.
That they explore new ideas without fear of retribution. As
a small military, this is our best bet for a qualitative difference.
1 Monroe, Elizabeth and
Farrar-Hockley, MAJ-GEN A.H., II. The October War, Adelphi
Papers No.111, IISS : London, 1975, pp. 20.
2 Bay, Austin, Military
Creativity, Army, Jan 95 Association of the US Army.
3 Thompson, Charles, What
a Great Idea! The Key Steps Creative People Take, Harper Collins:
NY, 1992, pp 4.
4 Bay, Austin, op cit.
5 Keegan, John, A History
of Warfare, Alfred A. Knopf : NY, 1993.
6 The following books give
excellent treatment of this subject: Charles B. Macdonald,
The Mighty Endeavor:_American Armed Forces in the European
Theater in WWII, (New York, 1969), pp.263; L.F. Ellis, Victory
in the West, I, The battle of Normandy (London, 1962), pp.
88-89, 140; Roland G. Ruppenthal, Logistical Support of the
Armies (Washington, 1953, pp. 273-282.
7 A good account of this
can be found in The Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower: The War
Years (5 vols.,Baltimore, 1970) III: No. 1794,pp 1969; Macdonald,
op cit., pp 294; and Omar N. Bradley, A Soldier's Story (New
York, 1951) pp 341-342.
8 Mangold, Tom and Penycate,
John, The Tunnels of Cu Chi - The Untold Story of Vietnam,
Random House : NY, 1985, pp 101.
9 Ibid, pp 109.
10 Katz, M. Samuel, Soldier
Spies - Israeli Military Intelligence, Presidio Press : CA,
1992, pp 216
11 Ibid, pp 217 - 218.
12 Monroe and Farrar-Hockley,
op cit., pp 26.
13 Rodwell, R. Robert, The
MidEast War: "A Damned Close-Run Thing", Air Force,
14 Carus, W. Seth, Military
Lessons of the 1982 Israel-Syria Conflict, from The Lessons
of Recent Wars in the Third World : Approaches and Case Studies,
Vol I, ed Robert E. Harkavy and Stephanie G. Neuman, Lexington
books, 1985, pp 264.
15 Austin Bay, op cit.
16 Dr Nakamats was interviewed
by Charles Thompson on 29 April 1990 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Among other issues discussed, Dr. NakaMats was asked about
the Japanese teaching methods and how it affects creativity.
See Charles Thompson, op cit., pp xi - xviii.
17 Ibid., pp 3 - 6.
18 Ibid., pp 1.
COL Tay Swee Yee is currently the Asisstant
Chief of General Staff (Intelligence). He attended the US
Army College Course in 1997. COL Tay's essay won a Commendation
Award in the 1997 CDF Essay Competition.